Renewable Energy Growing in Rural America

Nov 13, 2015  | 00:07:43  | Ep4112

Reducing reliance on foreign oil and cutting greenhouse gasses has largely been associated with city life.  However, there are those in rural America who share the same concerns as their in urban counterparts about the planet’s health.  Beyond reduce, reuse and recycle are efforts to bring renewable power into play and chart a new way forward for energy security and a lower carbon footprint.    

Nestled in a corn field near Kalona, Iowa, are four- and-a-half acres of solar panels soaking up the sun’s rays, collecting energy for homes and businesses across the nearby landscape. This 2,900 panel array took three years to build and is the crowning achievement for Farmers Electric Cooperative, one of the nation’s smallest groups providing power to rural customers.

Mark Cackler, Global Agricultural Practice, The World Bank, “The fact that this solar program is being carried out by rural cooperative means a lot. Because we need the companies to do their thing we need small companies to do their thing we also need cooperatives to do their thing.

The solar farm makes 1,800 watts of electricity available to each of its 600 members. And the pool of 800 kilowatts produced by the array is helping the cooperative reach its goal of guaranteeing 15 percent of each customer’s electrical power needs will come from renewable sources by the year 2025.

One of the groups helping Farmers Electric, and countless others, is a coalition that shares the same long term goals. The 25 by ‘25 Alliance is made up of a broad spectrum of green energy supporters who, through advocacy and engagement, are working to make 25 percent of the nation’s energy come from renewable sources by the year 2025. The partnership is employing an “all of the above” strategy to achieve its energy goals while benefitting the community.

Ernie Shea, Project Coordinator, 25x25 Alliance, “What we end up with is an opportunity for these new distributed generation projects like this solar farm here in Kolona being economic engines across rural America that are producing dollars for the local economy / and they are delivering cleaner forms of energy that the world was looking for.”

In the town of Linden, Indiana, the state’s first solar array was built for the members of the Tipmont Electric Cooperative. Much smaller in size than the Kolana solar farm, the array produces 100 kilowatts, providing enough power for nearly 20 homes.

But what this solar farm lacks in size, is made up by the ideas it generates. The array is being called a “Community Solar Farm” because power distribution is handled much the same as a community supported agriculture group, or CSA, operates.  Members lease a panel from the cooperative’s electric CSA instead of erecting panels on their property, guaranteeing a portion of the energy they use will be renewable.

Jason Monroe, Energy Management Supervisor, Tipmont REMC, Getting solar out to those members who you may not be able to have solar on there on the premise whether its because of trees or their they're building is a structurally sound or they have you know covenant in their neighborhood where they can't install them, so this gives them an opportunity to do that.

Many projects like these were started with Rural Energy for America Program grants using funds earmarked in the 2002 Farm Bill.  The seed money has helped farmers and rural businesses make going green more practical and affordable.

In Danville, Indiana, Wabash Valley Power took advantage of their not-for-profit status to secure Clean Renewable Energy bonds to construct a methane capturing facility at a local landfill. The green power plant provides electricity to two thousand homes in the area and takes advantage of a greenhouse gas that would otherwise be vented into the atmosphere.

Greg Wagner, Wabash Valley Power, “So as time went on we saw the opportunity to take that same methane  and put in these engines to make electricity rather than just flaring it off into the atmosphere.”

Capturing methane at landfills for power generation is a practice that has been in use for several decades. In Runnells, Iowa, a partnership between the Metro Waste Authority and Houston, Texas-based Waste Management helps provide electricity to more than 11,000 homes. The Metro Methane Recovery Facility has been in continuous operation since 1993. Due to increased demand, the partnership opened a second capture station in February of 2014. The landfill is permitted to collect methane from the decaying municipal waste until the year 2048, but officials say there will be plenty of fuel well beyond the expiration date on the paperwork.

Leslie Irlbeck, Metro Waste Authority, “...as we know, once the garbage is put into the landfill it continues to break down and continues to make methane and so as far as how long it will continue to generate methane after that point we're not quite sure about this but but as as garbage continues to break down there's always methane available to recover in turn into electricity.”

 Capturing gasses escaping from municipal solid waste facilities is only one method of producing power from methane.

The dairy cattle population near Fair Oaks, Indiana is close to 60,000 head. Searching to find a better way to dispose of manure, producers in the region built anaerobic digesters to turn a waste product into power.

This closed-loop system utilizes nearly all of its organic feedstock in one way or another. The heart of the system holds 6.2 million gallon of manure. The waste product is cooked at 105 degrees for 25 days to prepare it for other uses. Methane captured from the process is burned by nearby generators to produce electricity for use in the homes of cooperative members as well as power the daily operations of the dairy. And even the excess heat from the generator’s exhaust is used to keep the digester hot and the system in constant running order.

The captured solids become animal bedding and the liquids become pathogen-free fertilizer that is sprayed onto nearby fields that grow feed for the diary herds. In addition, the digestion process virtually eliminates odor from the area, which was one of the goals of Steve Bos, owner of Windy Ridge Dairy.

Steve Bos, Owner, Windy Ridge Dairy, “Because of the amount of cows that we put in this area and the spreading of manure doing the digester really removed about 90% of the smell associated with the manure and saw that really want a long ways neighborly wise.”

 As the U.S. looks towards a future of reducing its carbon footprint and decreasing reliance on foreign energy sources, the search will continue for low-impact, innovative and cost effective methods of electricity generation.  And as the price per kilowatt hour comes down, rural America will be among those powering-up with green sources of energy.

For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy.

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